It was a couple of years since Jess and I had last seen each other and besides it was the day before my birthday, so we had another. And another, now that everybody else in the camp had gone to bed. It’s important to be precise when writing in this space, so let me explain that we had by this time abandoned Mosi, the excellent beer of Zambia, and moved on to J&B whisky, mixed with a little water. It’s the right whisky for tropical life.
We were in the Luangwa Valley; Jess still lives there and runs Flatdogs Camp. We had met in the Valley, as old hands invariably call the place, when I was making an extended stay a year or two earlier, researching a travel book that never got accepted. On this occasion, we were sitting in a small thatched shelter surrounded by a knee-high wall of dried grass.
And we talked about who was doing what to whom and whatever happened to that guy, listening to the proop of scops owl, the jangle of the painted reed frogs, the whoop of hyena, the bleep of fruit bats and the occasional gut-thumping crump of lion: better mood music than most pubs.
We finished our drinks and it was surely time to call it a night if I was to be any good for the dawn chorus, but Jess said it would be my birthday in 20 minutes and we needed to see it in. So one more J&B, pale gold in the pale silver moonlight, the night air warm as an overcoat, those lions perhaps a shade nearer. Marvellous old friends and marvellous old beasts in marvellous old places: is anything better in the world?
‘What the hell’s that?’
‘God. I heard it too.’
‘It’s in the camp, isn’t it?’
‘Whatever it is, it’s not small.’
So, abandoning glasses, we made ourselves small and crept towards the sound: like someone thoughtfully crushing papadums. It was very clearly very big and very close and equally clearly, it was walking towards us across the fallen leaves outside our shelter.
How many creatures out there can kill you? Never mind that now, we haven’t got all night. We moved towards the great beast in a mixture of terror and exhilaration. Silence now. It had stopped. Then we heard the sound of munching, but that’s not necessarily good news. Herbivores can kill you just as efficiently as carnivores; they just don’t eat you afterwards. Hippo? Elephant? Or worse, a lone buffalo?
We were crouched below the level of the grass wall. As one, we raised our heads, looked up — way up — and there before us and above us was a sight of wonder and glory, as surreal as a Dali painting, though without the drawers in its neck, and as matter-of-fact as a Friesian cow. It was the biggest and tallest bull giraffe I have ever seen; neither the species nor the gender presenting an identification challenge.
He stood motionless in the moonlight, glowing as if lit from within. Beautiful, perfect and blindingly weird. Fascinating fact: giraffes, like humans, have seven vertebrae in their necks. These were clearly the finest vertebrae in the Valley.
By this time the mixture of terror and relief and whisky had us giggling like schoolgirls. So we had one more, a giraffe-frightener, and as the giraffe drifted back into the bush in the manner of a galleon, we went to our separate beds.
But I didn’t sleep, not at first, because the perfection of that midnight encounter rather got to me. As I lay there glowing with whisky and the bush and good company and remembered fright, I realised — as if someone was slowly turning up a dimmer switch in my brain — that my travel book was no travel book. Already it was beginning to turn into my first novel, Rogue Lion Safaris.
The giraffe scene made it into the book, more or less word for word, but since it’s fiction I allowed the heroine to be seduced: undone by whisky mixed liberally with giraffe.
When lovely giraffe stoops to folly…